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Hannah Perry for Fatherly

It Takes a Village. But Can You Trust the Villagers?

The news cycle makes it seem like parents shouldn't trust anyone to watch their kids. Is there a way to stay vigilant without being paranoid?

When I opened the email from my wife, the news hit me hard. A Facebook post was going around my neighborhood describing a daycare that sounded suspiciously like the one our son frequently attended. The post explained that the caregivers were said to be neglecting and even physically abusing small children in a brownstone backyard within view of neighbors.

The woman who wrote the post said that from her apartment windows, which overlooked the courtyard, she’d witnessed rough grabbing of arms and said she’d seen unsupervised children running around outside in dirty diapers or fighting with each other. The woman reported also that she’d seen one of the elder caregivers smoking cigarettes while the children played. My son was three at the time. Some of the other kids were as young as one.

I’ll share how this episode got resolved later, but first I want to talk about the topic of parental culpability, especially in light of the myriad pop culture and breaking news stories about the sexual abuse of minors, of teens, and even very young children. It’s on every parent’s mind because it’s on every newspaper front page and streaming network homepage — from the bizarre tale behind Abducted in Plain Sight, the Netflix documentary about an Idaho girl, her parents, and the conniving neighbor they all trusted, to Leaving Neverland, the two-part HBO documentary that tells the stories of two Michael Jackson accusers and has led to the posthumous downfall of The King of Pop.

Of course, R. Kelly looms as well, both in the Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly and in near-daily reporting of twists and turns in the R&B singer’s cases of alleged abuse of teenaged girls, as well as his bonkers interview with Gayle King on Good Morning America. Then there’s the ongoing Catholic Church pedophile priests scandal and the prostitution-ring massage parlors with alleged high-profile clients like New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; reports suggest that girls in their teens are being forced to work in these establishments, some against their will. It’s enough to make any parent want to keep tabs on their child 24/7.

How on earth could so many children be so at risk to predators, abusers, human traffickers, at a time when we should be more enlightened about parenting given all the knowledge we now have? Consider the myriad parenting sites, Internet databases, security cameras, social media warnings, local support groups, and more that are a click or a one-day delivery away.

But still, fears linger. The statistics around child sexual abuse, predictably, are not good. Government and aid group sources estimate that about one in five girls and one in 15 boys become victims of some form of sexual abuse during their childhood, and about 90 percent know their abuser.

That’s true of most of the examples I cited above. Sadly, it’s easy to see why, and yet also horrifyingly murky to figure out, in part because there are nuances to the reporting of these crimes and the prosecution of them. As Nadia Wagner, a forensic psychologist and expert in child sexual abuse explained in an article for The Conversation, abusers will often brainwash not only the kids but the parents — seemingly the case both in Abducted in Plain Sight and in Leaving Neverland. And then there’s society, which, per Wagner, desperately wants to believe in a just world. “So,” she writes. “We find it difficult to comprehend that bad things happen to those who do not deserve it.”

I’m sure I’m not the only Catholic-raised boy of a certain age who has watched the unfolding sexual abuse scandals — which started more than a decade ago, with new cases coming to light now almost routinely around the world — and wondered, did it happen to me? I’ve isolated the times I was alone or with a few other boys with priests from our parish and I’m sure that I never experienced any abuse personally, but given all that I’ve read about the syndromes that cause children to not register what happened as wrong, can I say that I’m 100 percent certain?

And if anything did happen, were my parents, who were trying to raise me with a belief in God, culpable for sending me to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes? Nothing could have been safer in the suburbs than sending a child to church.

Nowadays, we’re none the wiser, despite all the relative advantages of technology. We can wire our house with cameras to keep a digital eye on how your nanny or babysitter treats your kids. We can ensure that the names of teachers, caregivers, and neighbors don’t appear on registered sex offender lists. We can research criminal records online. Yes, social media can be a pitfall, but protective parents have numerous monitoring apps at their disposal. 

And yet here we are.

In a recent interview following up on the buzz about Abducted in Plain Sight, Vanity Fair writer Julie Miller asserts that the director, Skye Borgman, and the subjects of the documentary, want to alert the public to the need to protect our children, even from seemingly innocent acquaintances. “Don’t trust everybody,” Borgman says. “Don’t trust anybody, almost.”

It’s a cynical way to live. But then maybe we’re all in need of more cynicism when it comes to parenting. How else can parents who, like myself, send their children to day care and camp and leave them with babysitters make sure that they are not plopping their kids down into the maw of the beast — or always concerned that they might be?

To lay my fears to rest, I called author and clinical psychologist Dr. Michael G. Wetter for some advice. He was kind and helpful. And when I asked him about how such parents can best vet caregivers, he replied with a mix of high and low-tech advice. He said to invest the $9.99 into the online business database Intelius but also to ask trusted friends about day cares and sitters and such other programs and to take more time in general to vet options.

“A lot of people just go on Yelp and go, okay, I did my due diligence. But Yelp isn’t regulated,” he says. “Due diligence has to come back to people you know, people in your community. Sometimes people do more due diligence about a car that they buy than the childcare they’re seeking for their children.”

Guilty as charged. When we put my son into daycare, we originally asked around a bit and glanced online, but my wife and I were busy — with our jobs, our older child, our hectic lives. 

After I saw the post about the possible abuse in what sounded like my son’s day care, my wife and I discussed our son’s behavior at length and didn’t see anything to suggest that he’d been mistreated while there (We’d recently put him in a preschool program, so he was no longer attending). I then shared the woman’s post with another parent. They confronted the owner of the daycare but also did other research that proved that the Facebook post couldn’t have been referring to the daycare where we’d sent our kids.

We’d dodged a bullet, sure. We know we did. But the incident, and the current parade of documentaries and news stories, and friends’ accounts of all sorts of horrendous abuses, make me — and, I’m sure, many, many other parents — anxious about how much time our two-income household relies on relative strangers for childcare help.

Even if you’re not a star-struck parent giving your kid over to a celebrity who turns out to be a pedophile or to a friendly neighbor with a sex dungeon, there’s always that lingering feeling that you run a great risk of putting your children in harm’s way when you send them to day care or hire a sitter or bring them to a playdate. 

So is the solution to never leave your children alone with strangers? To helicopter parent? To hover? To track your kid or restructure your life to be able to watch them at all times?

“It’s quality versus quantity,” notes Dr. Jack Wetter, a now-retired clinical psychologist, and the father of the above-mentioned Michael G. Wetter’s dad. “I know parents who are around all the time who are terrible. They’re abusive, they’re on their cell phone all the time. They’re not into their kids at all. They’re watching TV. Being around doesn’t make you a better parent.”

The elder Wetter also tells me that he believes that screen time — for parents as well as for kids — can help explain why we’re in this predicament. What if amid all this talk of protecting our children, we’ve forgotten to pay attention to them, and they in turn have receded into their iPads?

Many parents today, myself included, focus too much on work on the weekends. We’re emailing and doing what we can to keep the jobs that pay for our kids’ daycare and give them opportunities that we then worry about because of all the things that distract us. But we also spend a lot of time posting on Instagram, or binge-watching documentaries about neglectful parents whose children fall prey to neighbors and celebrities.

Is this everyone? No. But I’m sure it resonates with many. So what can we do? In addition to being more vigilant in vetting programs and relying on friends, we should put all that aside and regularly cook a meal and sit down with our families and have an actual discussion. We should open up dialogues and make clear for our kids — and ourselves — that the world is a scary place but home is not. We parents should realize that when we have children, we sign up for something that’s bigger than us.

That is a scary thing. And it requires vigilance. But we also need to understand that there’s a fine line between vigilance and paranoia. We should all try to spend less time getting freaked out about trending child predator documentaries and depressing news stories and more time being engaged with our kids. That’s the best defense we have.